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Flood recovery - A sister from Cloncurry

The last two years have certainly been a time to remember – a time of drought, flood, horrific bushfires and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Australians at their very core remain steadfast in their generosity and kindness, none more so than Cloncurry’s Susan Dowling.

Born and raised in the Darling Downs, Susan has called Cloncurry in North-West Queensland, home since 1997.

“I first worked in Mount Isa for what was meant to just be a three-month stint back then but within 18 months had found my way to Cloncurry,” Susan said.

“Nursing was the main reason I ended up in the North West - a young person going on an adventure. I had a friend who used to talk about the fantastic people and country up here, and I wanted to have a piece of it so I made the journey.”

“Three months turned into years. I ended up staying, met my husband, and am now raising my family here and continuing to work in the health profession as well as our own businesses.”

In their early years together, Susan and her husband Peter took up a work opportunity in the Northern Territory as well as a stint owning a motel in Julia Creek, all life changing times for them both.  Both times returning to Cloncurry to call home.

“While Peter was working in the NT I took the opportunity to expand my nursing experience and practised as a Relieving Remote Area Nurse in Top End remote Indigenous communities. Those were challenging times that helped shape the person I am today.”

“You deal with what you get dealt. I’m not the first person to say that but it’s how we are up here – situations occur and you just have to work your way through them.”

After enduring years of drought in the far north, another life-changing situation occurred: the 2019 monsoon flood event that wiped out livestock by the hundreds of thousands, and decimated properties, small businesses and communities.

“During the 2019 flood, Peter was away so I was at home alone on the property we live on the whole time,” Susan said.

“Even though we are only 15 kilometres from town, there is a creek just behind the house that was luckily flooding away from the house so at no time did I feel in any personal danger. It was only later that you started to hear about the flood’s impact on the people and properties around you.”

The loss, devastation and sadness Susan witnessed from her friends and neighbours after the monsoon trough led to another life-changing event for her – the national recognition of Sisters of the North.

From humble beginnings, Sisters of the North quickly grew into a well-respected fully registered charity focussed on assisting communities affected by the 2019 flood.

“Sisters of the North was originally started for a very different purpose and ironically was never intended to become a registered Charity,” Susan said.

“Our motivation was to bring the community together after years of drought to raise spirits and encourage resilience to get through the awful seasons we were experiencing. But then the flood happened and totally changed the Sisters of the North’s course.”

Sisters of the North is managed by a committee with Susan at the helm, guiding them through the quagmire of thousands of emails and required government processes in the early days.

“I’m just one person but it certainly took a team,” she said.

“In the beginning we knew straight away that we had the backing of a lot of people, it kept giving us the push to keep going. What happened up here touched a lot of people’s hearts.”

“We were determined to be locally led and locally implemented, and knew that failure was not an option and we had to work hard to get in front of the momentum of the phenomenal support from our donors.”

Since the flood, Sisters of the North has raised $1.3 million, with much of that now distributed, almost all locally.

“One of the standout features of the charity is the Live Voucher program where station owners and workers were allocated money to spend at businesses in their Shire,” she said.

“It was important to us that the money was spent locally to support the small businesses that were indirectly impacted by the flood. We only intended to have one round of the Live Vouchers program, but with the COVID-19 impact this year we felt a second round was needed to keep getting the funds out into the community – that’s open now and closes at the end of September.”

“It took people a while to become comfortable with how it worked, but now it’s powering on.”

Managing the charity has been an enormous amount of work for Susan and the team, far more than she thought it would ever be.

“It’s been quite a journey, and I’ve had a lot of personal growth from it as a result – it’s been a privilege to represent our donors and in turn make sure people who were impacted got a hand up and the money ending up in the pockets of local businesses who wanted to be involved. Before COVID we also contributed to community events which meant we were  returning to the original Sisters of the North idea to socially connect and build community resilience which was important for me to do as the mental wellbeing aspect also resonated with my job,” she said.

“I don’t really know what’s next for me; the charity’s taken up so much of my time that the future is a bit of a blur. A holiday with my ever-supporting family would be nice.”

“We’ll keep distributing the money while it’s there. We don’t actively fundraise any more but we’re still getting the odd donation, people are still thinking of us.”

“One thing I’ve learned from the flood is that local people can step up and make a huge difference on the ground during emergencies and disasters if you give them a chance to do so, and give them the right amount of support. I was also very fortunate that my employer, Western Queensland Primary Health Network (WQPHN) embraced the Vision of the Sisters of the North and allowed to me to integrate both roles.  It was fortunate that professional opportunities and connections between the charity and the WQPHN leveraged nicely.

“The Prime Minister’s office gave us a lot of support in the early days when we were getting up and running. He totally understands our situation, and he’s still being informed directly by Shane Stone and the National Drought and Flood Agency, so that’s a great thing for the region’s ongoing recovery.”

Susan is a resilient woman of vision and resolve, connecting people and building community. This self-confessed ‘giver’ is both widely respected and admired.

In October 2020 the Australian Government released After the flood: A strategy for long-term recovery. The Strategy was developed by the National Drought and Flood Agency, with and for communities affected by the 2019 North Queensland flood event.  This blueprint for the region’s future can be used by anyone with a stake in its long-term prosperity. You can read more about it here.